Sunday, July 3, 2022

Swamp battle heads to court

Round one in the fight between Hikurangi Swamp dairy farmers and the Whangarei District Council (WDC) will take place in the High Court early this year (Dairy Exporter, December 2011, page 42).

Four farmers from among more than 20 within the 5600ha drainage and flood mitigation scheme have alleged a resource consent covering works and adjustments is invalid because the consent application by the WDC to the Northland Regional Council (NRC) was substantially amended and they were not told. That may have been because of a technicality, because the four were not submitters to the first application, but they claim the amended application and subsequent consent has created costly flood effects. It should have been re-notified, they believe, and have brought the case against both councils.

The High Court application seeks a ruling that the NRC should have notified the amended application or that a decision not to notify was invalid. The applicants are Michael and Roberta Collins, Peter Richards, Neville Thorne and Mark and Heather Gurr.

Initially the consent application didn’t raise concerns because farmers were told it was “merely to confirm in law the existing scheme design” which has operated since the 1960s, said Thorne.

However, the amended application contained new hydraulic engineering modelling and changes to stop banks and spillway crests, and the effect has been to spill more floodwaters more regularly onto their farms.

The proportions of water going to each of seven “pockets” within the scheme have been changed. Two of the four farmers have land in each of two pockets – Te Mata and Okarika – where the flood water proportions have risen two-and-a-half times.

Along with steeply rising targeted rate increases and reduced stocking, the regular flood remedial costs will make farming in the swamp scheme uneconomic, they believe. For example, the current target “A” rate of $70/ha is projected to increase to $354/ha in 2021 under the WDC long term plan. The total targeted rate take is projected to increase from $400,000/year to $1.35 million.

The much larger fight between farmers and the WDC which manages the scheme concerns the huge rate increases, a backlog of maintenance work and a deficit of direct spending in recent years leading to allegations of mismanagement. There have been protest meetings, tractor blockades and rates revolts.

Hikurangi Swamp working group chair Phil Halse, also deputy mayor, said those group meetings cannot now be open to the public because they get so rowdy. He didn’t think council staff should be put through holding meetings where a police presence was required. The WDC has in the past said it must have regard to many other stakeholders outside the scheme boundary, both higher and lower in the big Wairoa catchment.

Dairy farmer Ben Smith, chair of a group of concerned farmers with properties in the swamp, said the A, B, and C ratepayers contribute 85% of the target rates revenue and they own 8000ha collectively. The other 15% comes from peripheral landowners on 34,000ha.That much greater land area contains some within the Far North District Council above Hukerenui, which has now suspended its collection of that portion.

Swamp farmers are also up in arms over letters from the WDC requiring them to fence riparian strips on which they lease grazing from the council. Such fencing regularly blows out in floods and the WDC as landlord should be contributing to the capital costs, including stock watering, they believe. Smith said farmers understood the environmental reasons for fencing off the waterways but they want financial help for doing that. They would also like meetings with council staff members to talk over issues but these are never held.

Smith alleges the capital works programme has been suspended because of the WDC’s indebtedness, and there is a substantial deficit of spending from the targeted rates income.

Thorne said when he was on the liaison committee up until 2004 the scheme was debt free, but the committee was disbanded without explanation.

“Without that liaison committee, the council is disregarding many years of history and expertise,” he said.

The new working group formed by Halse earlier this year is attempting some of the roles but just recently three swamp farmers were excluded because they wouldn’t sign a conflict of interest notification because they are supporting the court action.

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